This morning it poured, thunder rolled, the radar showed green with localized, just over us, splotches of electric yellow. The rain slowed and stopped and the sky turned a dour gray. It is a time of seasonal uncertainty, and the first hours of the days were spent opening and closing windows, putting on and taking off a sweatshirt, wondering if the cool or humidity would win and seize the afternoon.
Finally, the sun came out.
I went to lunch up the road, a gathering of old friends and neighbors of a lady who has been, for my whole life, a part of the landscape, for decades year-round, and, when not, seasonal as her daughter and granddaughter are today.
She remembers, still, my grandfather, the Postmaster, stopping on his way home, dropping off the mail that they had not been able to get to town to retrieve that day. It would have been toward the end of his life, and he died, unexpectedly, in early nineteen forty-one, so it was not during a prosperous time on Block Island. He was lucky to have a job and likely felt it was the least he could do for his neighbors.
We gathered at her daughter’s house, next to what I have always known as The Homestead, the old, now red, Cape Cod at the head of the Mansion Road when my grandfather would have stopped. The house was full of old friends and neighbors and sun shown on the newly washed verdant grass and sharpened with shadows the beautiful trees edging the yard; it was not until I walked onto the porch, ready to leave, that I realized it was raining again, a true sun shower, that might finally wash the humidity from the air.
I came home and opened windows, and closed them again, at least part way, wondering how long it would be before more rain fell, in the night as forecast or sooner, like that strange little afternoon shower of slender silver needles.
The weather is part of our lives on any day and seems especially so when the sky reaches down and touches the ocean, and even where there is no wild wind and the boat runs though calm seas, I feel our remoteness exacerbated. My childhood notion that we floated, strengthened — despite knowledge to the contrary — by the aerial view of the island, a wafer drifting on the water, comes back to me on these days when we are, in the most literal sense, surrounded by water.
Last week was the anniversary, if that is even the appropriate word, of the 1938 Hurricane that blew up the coast and slammed this little part of the world. I mentioned it in this space, the Historical Society had devoted its annual meeting program to it two weeks ago and there was some chatter but not a great deal. Then I re-read a book, a quick read that focused on a few places hit especially hard, particularly Watch Hill and Jamestown, Rhode Island.
I grew up hearing the horror stories, usually prefaced with some variation of the lack of any warning, a fact I never questioned but always attributed to a lack of a solid communications network. Somehow, that we simply did not get hurricanes this far north, or did so rarely the possibility was discounted, never registered with me, until I read, for the second time, that aforementioned book. It was, it seems, like Galveston’s Great Flood, dismissed as something that would not be a terrible storm once it left the tropics.
People could have been evacuated and the death toll could have been slashed, but the stories do make one wonder how much, how little, of the property damage might have been mitigated with warning. Grand houses that were destroyed when the ocean rose from its bed and engulfed them would not have been saved by plywood over their windows; the storm surge that filed downtown Providence would not have been stopped by an effort of stacked sandbags; the orchards and barns that blew over on Block Island would not have been saved by an advance alert. Perhaps some of the fishing fleet might better have survived, but even that we’ll never know.
What does stun me is that so many of these areas were eventually rebuilt, although not the long bar of sand reaching out from Watch Hill, as they are all down the eastern seaboard. They seem not to know just on the other side of the water that the Escape Road was built and so-named for a reason, and little cottages are growing into grand houses, solidly built I’ve no doubt, but the outer wall that once separated the the broad harbor from the sea is little more than a jagged line of partly submerged rocks.
But I was surprised that Houston, only across the basin from where Galveston had boomed before the flood, had virtually no greater elevation than the then city which was destroyed over a hundred years ago.
This time of year I always think of other seasons and hurricanes which shut down the island, usually only to turn out to sea as they were expected to before 1938. There was a Labor Day in the nineties when the forecast emptied the New Harbor and the weekend was glorious, sunny and calm, without even the high surf we can get from storms that otherwise dissipate. Everyone had left.
Then there was the year they ran though the whole list of names and started over with the letters of the Greek alphabet. Nothing much happened here, but it does become wearing. And another, more recently, when a hurricane prowled the Atlantic, as forecasters seemed unable to agree upon the pronunciation of its name.
Now it is dark and I hear the crickets in the grasses beyond my windows when the wind dies. The day never did decide what it wanted to be when it grew up and then it was gone.